By Rajan Hoole –
The UNP’s New Culture of State Violence
The time was just after the General Elections of 21st July 1977, when Jayewardene’s UNP was returned with a five-sixths majority. The climate then created by unleashing violence on supporters of the defeated opposition is described in an article by Neil Dias titled 1977 Victims in The Island of 29th August 1994, just after elections where the UNP was defeated:
“While the post-election violence was preceded by a pledge given by the victor [i.e. Jayewardene] at the poll that he will give a period of leave after the election results to the law enforcement agencies, the plunder of August 1977 was heralded by the call of the same leader to the Sinhalese mob to the effect that they had lost their patience… [i.e. speech in Parliament below]
“[During July 1977 in the Kegalle District], houses of hapless victims living a few yards from police stations, court houses and bungalows of judicial officers were burnt and plundered with gay abandon. Those going to complain at police stations were turned away. Later, complaints were rejected by the courts as belated….”
Once the Police Force had reached a point where its direction from the highest to the lowest levels was to lend complicity to such perfidy, it was bound to create a break in the character and morale of the Force. The more unscrupulous among them would have lost no time in becoming political commissars.
We give below an extract from Prime Minister Jayewardene’s speech in Parliament on 18th August 1977, two days after the first incidents in Jaffna:
“…we are still one nation [and] this Government is elected to govern the whole Island… The vast majority of the people in this country have not got the restraint and the reserve that Members of Parliament, particularly those in the front ranks, have been used to. They become restive when they hear such remarks as that a separate state is to be formed; that Trincomalee is to be the capital of that state; that Napoleon had said that Trincomalee is the key to the Indian Ocean; and therefore Trincomalee is going to be the capital of the state…
“Whatever it is, when statements of that type are said and the newspapers carry them throughout the island, and when you say you are not violent but that violence may be used in time to come, what do you think the other people in Sri Lanka would do? How will they react? “If you want to fight let there be a fight; if it is peace, let there be peace!”
After a prolonged applause by members of his party, Jayewardene added:
“That is what they will say. It is not what I am saying. The people of Sri Lanka will say that. “When this happened in Jaffna – I am not saying that you [members of the TULF] caused it. You are completely innocent of it. When Sinhalese boutiques are attacked, when government property is attacked – every railway train bringing people from there to the South spread the stories – all that caused the death of the most innocent Tamil people and Muslim people, which should never happen. I am very sorry that it should have
happened…. “But I say, be careful of the words you use… Such words can inflame people of other nationalities. And what has happened can happen in a greater degree if such words are used by responsible leaders….”
If many in this country have commended Jayewardene’s speech as that of a statesman, it is because they have conditioned themselves to thinking that punitive tribal violence against a minority, collectively, is a legitimate response to a demand for a separate state – a ‘provocation’. In a highly polarised polity such as obtains in Sri Lanka, there are bound to be verbal excesses everywhere, in every community. A statesman is one who transcends these and appeals to the best in every community. This is not what Jayewardene was doing. The previous night there had been a massacre of Tamil railway staff at Anuradhapura station (see below) and here were the UNP parliamentarians applauding through Jayewardene’s speech!
There was disorder in Jaffna that resulted from deliberate provocation by the Police who continued to be a part of it. But not one Sinhalese was killed. Jayewardene knew that. The main problem was attacks on the Tamils in many parts of the country leading in the final count to several hundred deaths. The first thing Jayewardene should have done is to appeal for calm, declare emergency and order stern action against those resorting to violence. He did nothing of that kind.
His mob had already tasted blood by attacking the defeated opposition, and in his speech, he was treading the thin line where the leader of the mob is indistinguishable from the mob’s attorney. His warnings were all to the Tamils, not to the Sinhalese mobs, and ironically, the only police action resulted in four Tamil civilians being killed in Jaffna and several more elsewhere. Most indicative in the Jayewardene’s speech is the throwing down of the gauntlet, which drew the prolonged applause of his party members. The applause is mentioned in T.D.S.A. Dissanayake’s War or Peace in Sri Lanka? Vol II, but not in the Hansard. It alters the colour and meaning of the proceedings
The Sansoni Report records that violence began in Colombo early on the 20th morning, when at the Colombo Mail Exchange Tamil officers were attacked by subordinates and minor staff, while their superiors and the Police looked on. No action was taken against the assailants. One is not in the least surprised that such things happened in government institutions in Colombo itself after Jayewardene’s speech. However Jayewardene had claimed in his speech that he had asked all his party branches in Colombo East and West to go round and see that the Tamil people are protected!
The conclusion reached by Sansoni on the main cause of the violence is the same as that advanced in Jayewardene’s speech – namely, the demand for a separate state. If the speech is seen in relation to the events in Jaffna, one gets a clear picture of who was behind the 1977 violence.
*To be continued..
*From Rajan Hoole‘s “Sri Lanka: Arrogance of Power – Myth, Decadence and Murder”. Thanks to Rajan for giving us permission to republish. To read earlier parts click here